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Gazans Restive; Hamas Nervous; PA Calls For Early Local Elections

Yesterday I posted the suggestion that Hamas’s refusal to allow Gazans to demonstrate in support of Egypt’s protesters might be the product not only of fear of retribution but also the fear that Gazans might take the opportunity to protest Hamas itself.

And lo: this morning Haaretz reported that thousands of people have joined a Facebook group calling for a protest against the Hamas regime to take place this Friday in Gaza. A few Gazans have already attempted to demonstrate (also in response to a Facebook mobilization), but the Hamas police quickly stepped in, arresting six people — all women — and detaining a couple of dozen more. (At least one of the women is reported to have been slapped around by the police following her arrest, and Human Rights Watch has criticized Hamas for refusing to allow peaceful demonstrations.)

The Palestinian Authority is also taking steps, not only to quiet dissent but to preempt it. Like Hamas, the PA sent its police to disperse a small demonstration, although reportedly without using Hamas-style intimidation. It has also called for early municipal elections. (Its officials were elected in 2006, so they are now serving beyond their original terms without a popular mandate.)

These elections would be for local councils only, not for the president or members of parliament, but this still represents an interesting development because it appears to begin to formalize the Authority’s break with Gaza. Until yesterday, West Bank officials have always said elections could not be held since the two territories are divided. They have now reversed that position and called for elections in both the West Bank and Gaza, a demand Hamas says is beyond the PA’s authority. Hamas says it objects on the grounds that elections are premature before the two sides are reconciled, but presumably they would be eager to hold elections if they anticipated a great success.

The Hamas Factor

Hamas has been relatively quiet of late. No longer. Last night, they sent a barrage of rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel. One rocket hit the town of Ofakim and another the town of Netivot, where it landed near a wedding celebration. Four people were treated for shock; there were no other injuries. (lsrael, by the way, has reinforced the army and police presence on the border in response to the unrest in Egypt.)

As far as Egypt is concerned, Hamas is in a bind. On the one hand, they’re salivating at the prospect of permanently ending the Egyptian blockade of Gaza, which began the moment Hamas threw out Fatah in 2007. Once the blockade is lifted, it’s onward and upward. If the Mubarak regime falls and is replaced by ElBaradei, the inflow of arms into Gaza will almost certainly become infinitely easier. Hamas will have reason to celebrate.

But what if Mubarak stays, or departs only to be replaced by Suleiman? For Hamas, life could get even tougher than it already is.  As you know, the Egyptian army received permission from Israel over the weekend to enter the Sinai for the first time since the signing of the peace treaty in 1979. Its object is to seal the Egypt-Gaza border in order to prevent members of Hamas — which, remember, is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood — from infiltrating Egypt and joining the opposition. In the process of securing the border, Egypt has shut down the smuggling tunnels in the Philadelphi Corridor, resulting in a cutoff of fuel supplies into Gaza. Gazans are reported to be texting one another to hurry up and fill up their cars.

So what should Hamas do? Come out swinging in favor of the opposition, or maintain a tactful silence until it becomes clear which way the cookie’s going to crumble?

On the one hand, they are not allowing Gazans to demonstrate in support of the Egyptian protesters, for fear of retribution if Mubarak/Suleiman comes out on top. (The PA has made the same calculation, quelling a demonstration before it could get off the ground.) But on the other hand, there are reports of direct clashes between Hamas and the Egyptian army. DebkaFile — which, I caution, is notoriously alarmist — even goes so far as to say that Hamas has “opened a second, Palestinian, front against the Mubarak regime on orders from Hamas’ parent organization, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, confirmed by its bosses in Damascus.” They do not reveal the source of this information, and I have not seen confirmation of it elsewhere. It appears fishy on the face of it — if the decision has been made from on high that Hamas is officially to take on the Egyptian regime, there’s no logic to the suppression of Gazan demonstrations on behalf of the Egyptian protesters — but there might be another explanation for the silencing of Gazans. If Hamas allows them to gather and protest, who knows? They might protest Hamas.

Hey, a girl can hope.

The Muslim Brotherhood Ascends in Egypt

This just appeared in the NY Times: “‘We’re supporting ElBaradei leading the path to change,” said Mohammed el-Beltagui, a Brotherhood leader and former member of Parliament. ‘The Brotherhood realizes the sensitivities, especially in the West, toward the Islamists. And we are keen not to be at the forefront at this time.’”

Translation: ElBaradei works for us now, and we’ll step forward formally when we’re good and ready.

The Brotherhood has said it will only take part in a unity government (there it is, the inevitable phrase) from which Mubarak’s party has been excluded. Because ElBaradei has apparently allied himself with the Brotherhood, that statement is tantamount to a refusal by ElBaradei to govern together with Suleiman (not that Suleiman would necessarily have been interested in stepping back from any position other than President anyway, now that Mubarak has placed him in line for the top spot — particularly if it means answering to a Brotherhood stand-in). There are now, therefore, two clear sides: the Muslim Brotherhood (fronted by ElBaradei) and Suleiman. We will not see a scenario in which one will temper the other in a unity government. One will defeat the other full stop.

The Americans are in a serious bind here. Suleiman is undoubtedly the more palatable of the two choices from an American perspective, but ElBaradei — the fig leaf for an Islamist, anti-democratic organization — is ostensibly a pro-democracy figure at the head of a popular uprising against a repressive autocrat. It’s difficult to see how the US can possibly back Suleiman — the dictator’s designate — over the putative democrat. According to al-Jazeera, protesters in Cairo are already chanting, “Hosni Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, both of you are agents of the Americans.”

Still, the game isn’t over. As ever, beware the hasty generalization. It may be probable, but it is not a given that an election pitting ElBaradei against Suleiman would result in an ElBaradei landslide. The Times spoke to Sarah Elyashy, “a 33-year-old woman in the neighborhood of Heliopolis, where men armed with broomsticks and kitchen knives took to the streets to defend their homes against the threat of looters. ‘I wish we could be like the United States with our own democracy, but we can’t,’ [she] said. ‘We have to have a ruler with an iron hand.'”

Whether or not you approve the sentiment, there may be many others who feel the way she does — to say nothing of Egyptians who are determined to see democracy overtake autocracy but are horrified at the prospect of opening the door to an Islamist takeover. A tenth of Egypt’s population is Christian, and they, as well as other groups, will not be inclined to welcome the Brotherhood with open arms. Assume nothing, in other words. We are watching the contenders take up positions. We don’t know yet which way the contest is going to end.

Still. A commenter on one of my earlier posts asked if the Israelis are starting to get nervous. This one is.

BREAKING: The Brotherhood Makes Its Move

ElBaradei is in Tahrir Square in central Cairo right now, making a speech to protesters. This is his first appearance on a major stage since his return from exile last Thursday. He told the people, “You have taken back your rights and what we have begun cannot go back.”

Al-Jazeera is reporting that “The Muslim Brotherhood has said that ElBaradei is to negotiate for the opposition.” If this is true, it essentially constitutes an alliance between the Brotherhood and ElBaradei. Expect it to be pitched as a “unity government.”

The Brotherhood is a visible presence in Tahrir Square right now; the NY Times is reporting that Brotherhood members are moving through the crowd while ElBaradei speaks.

Three hours ago, Egyptian fighter jets circled low over the crowds in Cairo Square.

The Egyptian Revolution Right Now: A Situation Report

Here’s a snapshot of Egypt as of Sunday morning folded together with some analysis.

ON THE STREETS: The beginnings of anarchy. The police have thrown in the towel, leaving the maintenance of law and order to the army — but the soldiers inside the tanks, who have chosen for the most part to stand by inactive while crowds pour into the streets in defiance of the dawn-to-dusk curfew, are also doing little to keep the protesters safe. (You are probably reading reports that the army has taken the protesters’ side en masse; beware the temptation to swallow this whole.) Groups of people, primarily looters (as opposed to peaceful demonstrators), were taken off the streets last night, but the army is not enforcing a strict crackdown on either protesters or violent opportunists by any means. (More on this below.)

The product of the security vacuum is chaos. The death toll has tipped 100 and 2,000 are reported injured so far. Mubarak’s party headquarters building was burned to the ground and other government buildings set alight. As in Tunisia, prisons have been torched, and many convicts have escaped and are now roaming the streets. Egyptian television is reporting that at least sixty rapes have occurred since the unrest began five days ago. Citizens are arming themselves with sticks, clubs, bats, broom handles, kitchen knives, razors and guns to protect their homes from marauders; neighbors are banding together to defend individual streets. Looting is rampant: opportunists are pillaging everything they can get their hands on, and many otherwise law-abiding citizens are raiding supermarkets to get supplies into the house before there’s nothing left on the shelves. Store owners have been seen frantically painting their windows white to conceal the goods within. There are no longer any guards minding the banks, and ATM machines are being smashed and looted. Rioters broke into the Cairo Museum, smashing statues and pulling the heads off mummies. (Again citizens were seen taking matters into their own hands: Al-Arabiya reports that “young Egyptians – some armed with truncheons grabbed off the police – created a human chain at the museum’s front gate to prevent looters from making off with any of its priceless artifacts.”) Wealthy Egyptians are scrambling to fly out of the country on private jets and foreign airlines are suspending flights. Al-Jazeera, which had been broadcasting the protests around the country, has been taken off the air.

MUBARAK’S STATUS: Mubarak is refusing to resign, but there is word (as yet unconfirmed) that he’s fled Cairo for his home in Sharm-al-Sheik. He has sent his family (his two sons and his wife) to London and has appointed his intelligence czar, Omar Suleiman, as VP. This amounts to a concession by Mubarak that his son Gamal — who has been groomed as his successor — will never take power. (Mubarak was Sadat’s VP and ascended to power when Sadat was assassinated; the VP spot is the presidency’s on-deck circle.)

Many protesters will likely view Suleiman as a spider’s compromise, however, since he has been Mubarak’s intelligence chief since 1993 and is essentially his right-hand man. The Americans are no doubt torn on this one: he’s described as “deeply distrusting Iran, favoring close relations with Washington, supporting the cold peace with Israel, and against easing up on the Muslim Brotherhood” and is thus a nearly ideal candidate, but a candidate is exactly what he isn’t. He hasn’t been chosen by the people; he is being appointed (to all intents and purposes) by the ruling despot. Whom to back — Suleiman or ElBaradei? ElBaradei hopes to establish himself as the people’s choice, but Suleiman not only slots better into American foreign policy goals but will almost certainly have the army on his side.

As far as Egyptian popular opinion goes: as always, beware the reckless generalization. It is not a given that all Egyptians will be outraged by Suleiman’s appointment — either by the subversion of democracy it represents or by the man himself. Some will welcome the return to law and order a strongman can provide, and that proportion will increase the longer the current anarchy continues.

WITHIN THE MILITARY: Egypt has the draft. Unlike its policemen, its soldiers are not in uniform voluntarily. From Mubarak’s perspective, the men inside the tanks could have gone either way, and they are indeed showing themselves to be undecided at best: they are neither cracking down on the protesters nor actively defending them. Many striking images are circulating of soldiers emerging from their tanks to be held aloft on the shoulders of protesters, but less mention is being made of the protesters urging the soldiers to open fire on the riot police — a step they refused to take. The army has not formally taken any side and is unlikely to do so until it becomes clearer whether or not Suleiman — an ex-general who is perceived as the army’s candidate — will take power.

MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD: These people are much too smart to get out in front of this until the movement has received strong Western approval. The question, however, is not if they will make their move, but when. The Brotherhood has a real shot in Egypt and they will try to make the most of it. To build support abroad, they will employ what has become their modus operandi: they will try to co-opt Western opinion through the use of strategic buzzwords. (Expect much conspicuous talk about democracy and moderation.) This will not be evidence of their change of heart; it will be a means to their end, which remains a theocracy that is in every way the diametric opposite of a liberal democracy.

The Brotherhood threat will diminish materially if Suleiman succeeds in taking Mubarak’s chair soon. He’s been keeping a tight lid on Egypt’s Islamists for years and will undoubtedly consider it a top priority to reassert his authority over them.

ISRAEL: Bibi has finally spoken, and what he said reflects Israel’s extreme reluctance to wade into this situation. “The peace between Israel and Egypt has lasted for more than three decades and our objective is to ensure that these relations will continue to exist,” he said. “We are following with vigilance the events in Egypt and in our region … we must show responsibility and restraint and maximum consideration.” Internally, this mess is seen by some as further evidence that the central problem in the region isn’t us. I would imagine that that point is quietly being made by Israelis in diplomatic circles.

Bibi will likely breathe a sigh of relief if Suleiman is able to take power smoothly and hold on. In addition to keeping Egypt’s Islamists under control, he has long been Egypt’s top envoy to Israel, Fatah and Hamas, according to Dr. Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. He is pro-Fatah (i.e., pro-PA) and deeply suspicious of Hamas’s Islamism, which is obviously in keeping with Israeli policy. ElBaradei is a big question mark, although he is generally perceived as both wobbly (at best) on Iran and weak. Not an appealing combination.

Israel is worried about the impact of regime change in Egypt on its struggle to prevent arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza, but that ties into a greater concern with much deeper implications. The peace treaty with Egypt meant the IDF could focus on the northern front, but if the Brotherhood takes over, that will have to change. The Brotherhood has already said that one of its first acts, if given the opportunity, would be to rip up the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Israel is thus reported to be considering a reallocation and reconfiguration of its defense resources.

IRAN: Publicly, they’re expressing warm satisfaction, but they don’t know which way this is going any more than the rest of us do. Their hard-liners are busy taking credit: “‘Today, as a result of the gifts of the Islamic revolution in Iran, freedom-loving Islamic peoples such as the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt and nearby Arab countries are standing up to their oppressive governments,’ said a leading hard-line cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi.” Iran stands to gain a great deal from the turmoil: their client Hezbollah has just taken control of the government of Lebanon, and if Egypt goes down too, Iran doesn’t need to wait for Jordan to collapse to take on Israel (and Jordan is teetering anyway). An Egyptian descent into Islamism won’t necessarily make an Iranian attack on Israel (by proxies or direct) imminent, but it would make it quite a bit more likely. Remember that Iran already has an arm to Israel’s west: Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

HAMAS: Watching and waiting, like the rest of us. They will be in a much stronger short-term position if Islamists take over Egypt, although they may ultimately be pushed out: Hamas has been struggling for some time with extremists who believe the organization is not sufficiently Islamist. Still, Hamas is bankrolled by Iran, so it’s not going anywhere overnight. If Egypt goes Islamist, it will ultimately be Iran’s strategic decision to make whether or not to stick with Hamas or put their money on a more hard-line horse.

Is the Muslim Brotherhood Behind the Egyptian Uprising?

No, it isn’t.

That is not to say that that Islamist, profoundly anti-democratic organization (which, by the way, is technically banned in Egypt, although its members hide in plain sight as “independent” critics of the government) will not maneuver its way to the forefront, nor that it will not ultimately hijack the movement for its own ends. But this appears by all accounts to be a genuine popular uprising, inspired by the eviction of the Tunisian dictator by his own people. The Brotherhood has not directed any of the Egyptian demonstrations or even ordered its followers to attend, although it has announced that it will participate in a demonstration after noon prayers today. Still, to be on the safe side, the Egyptian security services — whose efforts to defend the beleaguered regime have not abated and have in fact been redoubled, despite calls from high places to cool it — have taken at least twenty senior members of the Brotherhood into custody. Al-Arabiya reports that those arrested include five former members of parliament.

The Egyptian uprising remains leaderless (although probably not for long: keep an eye on pro-democracy figure Mohammed ElBaradei, who returned from his exile in Vienna yesterday and will appear at a demonstration today). The protesters are enraged by high prices, rampant unemployment and a brutal, autocratic government. Their rage can certainly be tapped by an organized movement with an Islamist agenda, but Islamists are by no means the only players in the field. The window of opportunity is open, possibly very briefly, for both the forces of good and the forces of darkness.

I realize that that sounds melodramatic, but I cannot emphasize strongly enough what is at stake here. This could be the moment at which Egypt, an American ally and the first Arab country to make peace with Israel (however cold that peace might be), emerges into the light of true, pluralistic, liberal democracy. It could also be the moment when Egypt descends irrevocably into the dark night of theocratic repression — a descent that would have incalculable consequences, not only for Egyptians but also for Americans and for the world.

President Obama will have to take an unequivocal stand one way or the other, and he’ll have to do it fast. To stand politely on the sidelines of an upheaval as geopolitically important as this is to concede defeat. We should not underestimate the difficulty of Obama’s task here — support, if mishandled, can be perceived as intervention, which could then hopelessly delegitimize the movement for change — but if ever there was a time for the American president to demonstrate his intelligence, diplomatic skill, foresight, and commitment to democracy, that moment is now.

Riot Roundup: Add Yemen to the Mix

I have to dash but want to give you a snapshot of what’s going on today:

EGYPT: Anti-government riots are continuing into a third day. Riot police are using tear gas and rubber bullets; demonstrators are using petrol bombs and rocks. Four confirmed dead so far (three demonstrators in Suez and a policeman in Cairo). Demonstrators torched a government building and a police post in Suez. Hundreds arrested; forty people have been charged with trying to overthrow the government. Reports of flight by Mubarak’s family have been denied. Take particular note of this: Mohammed ElBaradei, identified by Haaretz as a pro-democracy “reform campaigner” (but probably more familiar to you as the ex-DG of the International Atomic Energy Agency), is returning to Egypt today after years of exile and is expected to take part in demonstrations tomorrow.

YEMEN: Thousands of protesters, apparently organized by Yemen’s opposition coalition, appeared on the streets of Sanaa to protest corruption and poverty. Note that Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled the dirt-poor country for over 30 years, is considered a critical ally to the US in the fight against al-Qaida in Yemen.

TUNISIA: Protests continue amid the general chaos (an example of which is the statistic that a reported third of the country’s prison population has escaped). The aim of the protesters, now that President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has fled, is a purge of his loyalists from the government. An international arrest warrant has been issued for Ben Ali, his wife and other members of his family. Lazhar Karoui Chebbi, the Minister of Justice, is calling on Interpol to locate and return Ben Ali et al to Tunisia for trial. The family’s assets have been frozen and the head of Ben Ali’s former presidential guard is now under investigation for violence.

LEBANON: Calm today. All roads have been reopened and barriers removed.

What We Didn’t Hear in the State of the Union

Huh. I know it was a state of the union address, not a state of other unions address or a state of our union in relation to other unions address. Still, there were some striking omissions.

Not a peep about that pesky Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Surprising though that is — I could have sworn it was a fairly high priority for the administration — there was something rather refreshing about the choice not to subject the parties concerned to all the familiar empty bromides. (Besides, al-Jazeera is busy orchestrating the process anyway. Why commit yourself when you can leave matters in the capable hands of the Emir of Qatar?)

Not a peep about Egypt, either. Thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets yesterday, facing down riot police bearing tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons, to protest years of human rights abuses, poverty, unemployment, and the thirty-year grip of an unpopular prime minister. Now, that’s an awkward one. Mubarak’s an ally, and who knows who might arise in his place if he’s tossed out? Obama’s speech contained a shout-out to the revolutionaries in Tunisia, so presumably he figured he was covered on the hooray-for-freedom-around-the-world side. Best to keep mum on Egypt. Hey, it’s fresh; it’s complicated. Cut the guy some slack.

But I ask you. How do you not mention Lebanon after what happened this week? A US-friendly prime minister — a guy you just hosted in the Oval Office two weeks ago, Mr. President; remember him? — was overthrown by an Iran- and Syria-backed terrorist organization that assassinated his pro-Western father and has handpicked his successor. Hello? Lebanese citizens took to the streets yesterday to protest the theft of their country by the enemies of freedom — people who, lest we forget, have been committing terrorist acts against Americans for decades, including the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 American servicemen in 1983 — and you have nothing to say to the protesters in support? I know — this one is complicated too. You’re trying to get Syria to like you right now. You’re trying to find a way to get Iran to knuckle under without doing anything icky or scary. I get it. But if you’re worried about their opinion of you rather than the other way around, you’ve already lost. And so has Lebanon.

Ah, well. At least they’re not alone. The Lebanese protesters can console themselves with the thought that when Iranian citizens went out in the streets to try to stand up for freedom against tyranny, Obama had nothing to say to them, either.

A Quick Word About PaliLeaks

Now everybody’s doing it.

Al-Jazeera has pulled off its own version of Wikileaks by announcing that it has, and will gradually produce, over 1,600 documents that show senior members of the Palestinian Authority to have caved in to and even pre-empted Israeli demands during peace negotiations. Abbas et al are thus doubly to be humiliated: for having gone on bended knee to the Zionists and for still coming home with nothing.

The provenance of the documents is unknown, and there are plenty of details that should be setting off alarm bells among the documents’ readers (say, why is this piece of paper dated 2011? Because al-Jazeera made fresh PDFs? And they did that because…?) Israel comes out looking bad, but no one seems to care about that much. The real story — the story most of the world’s journalists seem hell-bent on swallowing whole — is the public disgrace of Mahmoud Abbas and his negotiators. The “PaliLeaks” story thus appears to be a deliberate attempt by al-Jazeera, which is owned by the Emir of Qatar, to influence Palestinian politics by compromising Abbas beyond the point of no return.

Hamas doesn’t seem to have engineered this — they’re not that slick — but this business obviously works to their advantage, and they’re trying to use it to leverage Palestinian popular opinion against the Palestinian Authority. Haaretz, curious to see if Palestinians are indeed turning on Abbas and his crew, went to Ramallah to investigate, where they found the opposite of a popular uprising. Not only officials but the citizenry at large appear to be closing ranks around Abbas. Al-Jazeera’s offices, not Abbas’s, were set upon by angry Palestinians who have accused them (inevitably) of being not Arab, but Zionist.

The Reuters photo above is of Palestinians burning an Israeli flag with “al-Jazeera” painted on it. You can’t make this stuff up. (Actually, it appears you can.)

Hezbollah Rising: A New Era Begins in Lebanon

The New York Times headline says it all: “Hezbollah Chooses Lebanon’s Next Prime Minister.” Hezbollah’s candidate, Najib Miqati, secured enough support yesterday to form a new government. Supporters of ousted PM Sa’ad Hariri, as seen in this al-Jazeera video, are calling the development a “coup.”

photo by Bilal Hussein, taken in Lebanon yesterday, via the Washington PostHariri, whose government was disintegrated by Hezbollah when he refused to denounce the UN tribunal that is expected to indict members of the group for his father’s assassination, has refused to join a government run by a Hezbollah appointee. Hariri is considered by most Lebanese Sunni Muslims to be their leader, so his absence from the government leaves a large chunk of the population unrepresented and effectively consolidates Hezbollah’s power. Miqati has not yet spoken about the tribunal, but his acceptance of the nomination was allegedly contingent on his agreement to cease all cooperation with it and  halt its funding upon assuming office.

Tensions are rising fast. The Times describes the scene last night:

By nightfall, angry opponents of Hezbollah took to the streets in parts of Beirut, Tripoli and other cities, burning tires, shouting slogans and offering at least an image of what many feared Hezbollah’s victory might unleash: strife among communities in a country almost evenly divided over questions of foreign patrons; posture toward Israel; and the relative power of Lebanon’s Shiite Muslims, represented by Hezbollah, and its Sunni foes.

Acrid smoke billowed into a nighttime sky, as barricades temporarily blocked some roads into Beirut before security forces dispersed the demonstrators. Hezbollah’s foes called for “a day of anger in all of Lebanon” on Tuesday, and martial language and cries of treason began punctuating the public discourse.

“Down with Hezbollah! Down with Miqati!” young men shouted in Beirut.

This victory — which depended on the support of Druze leader and gifted political flip-flopper Walid Jumblatt, who became allied with Hezbollah all of a week ago — marks the apotheosis of Hezbollah’s ascension into the mainstream of Lebanese politics. And because Hezbollah is Iran’s obedient offspring, its nominee — the billionaire and soon-to-be-premier Miqati — is being viewed by some as little more than an Iranian proxy. Israeli Vice PM Silvan Shalom, for instance, describes the new situation as “an Iranian government on Israel’s northern border.”

But these events do not (yet) represent a full conquest of Lebanon by Iran. For one thing, the view that Iran is pulling all the strings discounts the great influence Syria continues to have over events. (Syria, not Iran, is believed to have selected Miqati.) As long as Hezbollah remains beholden not only to the mullahs in Teheran but also to the ostensibly secular Syrian dictator, they will be hard-pressed to drag Lebanon into a full-scale theocratic thugocracy. (Of course, all bets are off if Bashar al-Assad gets religion, which in this neighborhood is by no means out of the question.)

And as the protests in the streets suggest, the nation’s people are not yet down for the count. Hezbollah, which has no experience constructing governments, could easily antagonize its Sunni opponents to the point that they are stirred to direct, and possibly organized, confrontation. As the Times suggests, a Sunni militancy could arise as a backlash against Hezbollah, particularly in restive Sunni strongholds like Tripoli. A development of that kind has the potential to backfire badly for Hezbollah, since most of the greater Arab world is Sunni. (Oh, and by the way — lest you think anything about this region is ever simple – Miqati himself, the handpicked candidate of Shiite Hezbollah, is Sunni too. That was almost certainly part of the calculation in choosing him, but Hariri’s Sunni supporters aren’t buying it.)

The US will obviously need to review Lebanon’s status as an ally, particularly if the new government disavows the UN tribunal. (According to al-Jazeera, hints have already been made that the change in government will affect American aid.) Israel remains publicly unruffled by the developments, with one person — IDF general (ret.) and former national security adviser Giora Eiland — spotting a silver lining. “If Hezbollah is behind the government,” he said, “it will be much easier to explain to the international community why we must fight against the State of Lebanon.” (I’m not quite as reassured by this as he is, but it’s something.)

In the meantime, we wait. Today is meant to be the “day of rage.” It’s still morning. I’ll let you know what the day brings.